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State v. Hightower

Decided: November 3, 1986.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County.

King, Deighan and Havey. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D.


[214 NJSuper Page 43] In this case defendant was convicted on October 30, 1986 of capital murder during the guilt phase of his jury trial in Mount Holly. He was found guilty of the purposeful and knowing felony murder of an employee of a grocery store during the course of a robbery. Before the start of the sentencing phase of his capital trial, defendant told his lawyer that he did not

want to contest the State's pursuit of the death penalty. He ordered his counsel not to present evidence in mitigation of his crime and of the death penalty. He also said that he wanted the death penalty imposed and did not wish to serve 30 years to life in State Prison. However, he does wish to appeal the finding of guilt.

The Law Division judge who conducted the guilt phase of the trial immediately ordered a psychiatric examination by the Burlington County physician. This examination was conducted on Friday morning, October 31. On that afternoon he gave testimony that defendant was legally competent and understood what he was doing. The judge then ruled that the defendant's wishes must prevail in this circumstance. Counsel was told by the judge that defendant's desires were paramount to counsel's desire to pursue a full and vigorous presentation in mitigation before the jury during the punishment phase. Defense counsel was prepared to present six witnesses expert in the medical and social sciences to testify as to various factors in mitigation.

Because of the novelty and the obvious importance of the issue, see State v. Koedatich, 98 N.J. 553 (1984), we granted the motion for leave to appeal filed by defense counsel, who felt an obligation to seek a review of the Law Division order which states "that defense counsel abide by the request of the defendant not to present the evidence to support the existence of mitigating factors, which would include the testimony of Dr. James D. Nelson, M.D.; Dr. Mona Margarita, Ph.D.; Ms. Cessie Alfonso, A.C.S.W.; Dr. Ira L. Fox, M.D.; Dr. John H. Diepold, Jr., Ph.D.; and Dr. T. J. Chamberlain, M.D." See R. 2: 2-4. We scheduled and heard oral argument in chambers at 9 a.m. on Monday, November 3, and then issued an order summarily accelerating disposition of this matter, R. 2:11-2; R. 2:8-3(b), and summarily reversed the order of the Law Division judge.

Certainly tension exists between the desires of the client as expressed to his lawyer and the constitutional necessity to insure that the ultimate penalty is not extracted in a "wanton and freakish manner." See Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 309-310, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 2762, 33 L. Ed. 2d 346 (1972). In normal circumstances, the lawyer is required by the Rules of Professional Conduct to "abide by a client's decisions concerning the objectives of representation." RPC 1.2(a). See also Gilmore v. Utah, 429 U.S. 1012, 97 S. Ct. 436, 50 L. Ed. 2d 632 (1976), where the United States Supreme Court by a 5-4 memorandum decision allowed a condemned defendant to waive his rights to

federal review and submit to execution. Dissents were filed in Gilmore by four members who still remain on the High Court today (Justices Brennan, Marshall, White and Blackmun).

Under our statutory scheme, a jury may impose the death penalty only if the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c)(3)(a).*fn1 If the jury did not hear the evidence allegedly in mitigation, it could have difficulty discharging its statutory, and indeed moral, duty. Our conclusion is reinforced by a recent amendment to the death penalty statute which requires that an appeal must be taken even if defendant does not want to appeal and that our State Supreme Court must review the issue of proportionality of the sentence on defendant's request. N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(e).*fn2 The amended statute says

e. Every judgment of conviction which results in a sentence of death under this section shall be appealed, pursuant to the Rules of Court, to the Supreme Court. Upon the request of the defendant, the Supreme Court shall also determine whether the sentence is disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant. In any instance in which the defendant fails, or refuses to appeal, the appeal shall be taken by the Office of the Public Defender or other counsel appointed by the Supreme Court for that purpose.*fn3

The predecessor statute merely provided for a permissive, not mandatory, appeal on the guilt and proportionality issues. We conclude that even permissive review only on the proportionality issue compels the conclusion that the jury must at least listen to any relevant evidence on ...

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